Ethics of Future Farm Tech (Part 5 of 6)

Future Farm Types
Vertical ‘farm’ skyscrapers – art by Vincent Callebaut Architects

In preparing for this blog, I interviewed two people I considered experts in agriculture. Professor of Agriculture at Parkland College, Jennifer Fridgen, and Rich Affeldt, senior agronomist at Central Oregon Seeds, Inc. During the interview, they both expressed some similar concerns. They both lamented that people don’t care about the life of a farmer, and no one understands the struggles they go through. They also both feared what farms may look like in the future. Fridgen feared the loss of farm culture, and the rise of corporate farms. Affeldt feared that farm sizes would shrink, and there would be more ‘farmettes’ – farms that are small, specialized, and barely profitable.

I think they are both right. Many different directions will be taken with farming and the successful ones will continue. The organic farm movement is a throwback to simpler times, and this trend may continue. Some farms will resist using robots, boasting about employing hardworking individuals, managing their fields by hand, and fighting nature the way God intended. Other farms may fully embrace the technology, becoming fully automated where no one steps foot in the field because the owners are actually an LLC with offices in a high rise in Chicago. There will be some farms that are environmentally friendly to the extreme – growing a wide variety of plants, with corn and soybean growing alongside each other, crowded by milkweed and sunflowers, tended to by robots. Others may go entirely economic – growing corn or soybeans with not a single other living thing allowed in its confines. They’ll be extremely productive, but extremely damaging to the environment.

People, businesses, and robots may have different opinions on the best way to farm.

               Where your farm may fall within here is only up to you to decide, but don’t think you’ll be able to keep running your farm the same way forever. If it isn’t you, it will be your children. Within the next few decades, robots will revolutionize industries and farms won’t get by unscathed. For many it will be a matter of remaining profitable. The robots will be cheaper labor, they’ll make decisions faster, they’ll be more accurate than a sharpshooter, and they won’t get tired. In “The Dawning of the Ethics of Environmental Robots“, authors Aimee, Donhauser, and van Wynsberghe reveal a rapidly growing taxonomy of ethical and environmental “ecobots”. Many robots are becoming specialized and better suited for their tasks than humans could ever be. They believe that some of these robots could one day be used to restore habitats that humans destroyed.

But it won’t just be black and white. In the video embedded below, the German educational youtube channel Kurzgesagt (German for “In a Nutshell”), tries to tease apart the myths and misconceptions of organic versus conventional agriculture. In the video, they describe a future scenario where the lines may begin to blur as robotics and technology advance, making organic farming methods easier, while GM crops may become more valuable. They put forth the idea that many farms in the future will be hybrids, utilizing the best parts of all approaches.

                I believe that between the extreme examples of my farms, from the extremely environmental, to the extremely destructive, will be an ideal farm that is productive beyond our dreams, and yet teeming with life. A farmer will find it economical to eliminate invasive species and noxious weeds, but may find that their soil thrives if a few local plants are permitted to grow. Environmental activists could be soothed knowing that the farms are doing their part to restore habitats, and allowing endangered species to live in their field, while exterminating invasive destructive ones. She may employ a few helping hands to help repair the robots and do odd jobs around the farm, but the specialized tasks will be left to the robots. If a half acre looks like it will be unproductive, a robot could swiftly replace the crop with some other fast-growing crop – or even a garden. In the future, this could give farmers an alternative income in usually unproductive areas.

To continue, join me at finale, Final Thoughts.

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At the time of this writing, I am a student of computer science & crop science at Parkland College in Illinois. To learn more, check out my About Me page.